Duke, North Carolina have made ACC tournament a two-team party

John Feinstein
Columnist March 10, 2011

It was about as stunning a collapse as anyone at Greensboro Coliseum had ever witnessed. Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said he couldn’t remember being involved in anything like it at any level, as a player or coach.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

“Up 10 with 42 seconds to go or down 10 with 42 seconds to go, no, I’ve never been part of anything like that,” he said in response to a question Thursday afternoon. “We just got tight, gave them a chance and they finished.”

Eventually. Even though Miami scored 10 points in 29 stunning seconds in the final minute of regulation to turn a 53-43 Virginia lead into a 53-53 tie, the Hurricanes missed a free throw that would have given them the lead and turned over the ball while trying to set up a last shot.

Miami finally pulled away to win the first-round ACC tournament game, 69-62 in overtime, because Virginia was too emotionally drained by what it had kicked away — almost literally — in that last minute.

“I’m proud of our kids for never giving up,” Miami Coach Frank Haith said. “Everyone we asked to get something done in that last minute did it. It’s a great win.”

Indeed it was. And it was a gruesome defeat.

Then again, what did it all mean? Probably this: Miami (19-13) will play in the tournament next week. Virginia, at 16-15, probably won’t.

That’s the National Invitation Tournament, which once upon a time was referred to mockingly by ACC people as the Not Invited Tournament. These days, a lot of ACC teams call it home.

The ACC has become a two-team league in recent years: Duke and North Carolina. Or North Carolina and Duke — take your pick.

Does that mean that Miami can’t beat North Carolina on Friday afternoon? No. Does that mean Marylandcan’t beat Duke on Friday night? No. What it means is that those upsets would be blips. Neither would get the winner into the NCAA tournament. Miami and Maryland will have to win the ACC tournament to play in games that really matter next week.

Apart from the Blue Devils and Tar Heels, the choices are hardly exciting. Florida State is almost certain to be in the NCAA tournament for a third straight season, but does anyone remember the last time the Seminoles won an NCAA tournament game? Try 1998. Clemson? A year earlier. Virginia has won one NCAA tournament game since firing Jeff Jones in 1998. Virginia Tech won a first-round game in 2007 — that’s it in this century so far.

North Carolina State reached the Sweet 16 in 2005 and went to five straight NCAA tournaments from 2002 to 2006. Wolfpack fans were so happy that they practically ran Coach Herb Sendek out of town. Now, Sidney Lowe is almost certainly going to be sent packing after five years without an NCAA tournament bid.

Skip Prosser’s death in the summer of 2007 threw a pall over the Wake Forest program that still hasn’t gone away. Prosser and Dino Gaudio, his successor, recruited some very good players who got the team to the tournament the last two years, but many left early for the NBA and Gaudio was fired last March (after reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament) and replaced by Jeff Bzdelik, who walked into one of the barest cupboards in ACC history.

The Demon Deacons wrapped up a humiliating 8-24 season Thursday with their first-round ACC tournament loss to Boston College and will now go down in history as arguably the worst ACC team since Georgia Tech went 0-14 in 1981, the year before Bobby Cremins arrived to resurrect the program.

Georgia Tech may be looking for a new coach by next week, too. Paul Hewitt got his team to the national championship game in 2004 but, even though he has recruited some formidable talent, has won just two NCAA tournament games since and entered Thursday night’s game against Virginia Tech with a 13-17 record.

And Maryland? Everyone knows that in the early part of this decade Gary Williams did what many people consider impossible: He had a program that looked Duke and North Carolina right in the eye. The Terrapins went to back-to-back Final Fours in 2001 and 2002 and won the national title in 2002. They were back in the Sweet 16 a year later. Since then, they haven’t been past the second round even though they did tie Duke for the regular season title a year ago. Maryland will probably need to win four games this weekend to avoid a fourth trip to the NIT in seven seasons.

In short, this has become a two-tiered league. Since Georgia Tech’s Final Four run in 2004, only two ACC teams not named Duke or North Carolina have even reached the Sweet 16 (N.C. State in 2005, Boston College in 2006).

Most years — last year was an exception for North Carolina — the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels swagger into this weekend playing for seeding in the tournament that matters next week. The rest of the league almost always comes in trying to — best-case scenario — lock down a bid or — worst-case scenario — hoping for a miracle.

Since 1997, Duke (nine) and North Carolina (four) have won 13 of the past 14 ACC tournaments. Only Maryland’s miracle in 2004, when it won three games against higher-seeded teams to take the title, has interrupted that streak. That sort of thing can certainly happen here this weekend, but that’s what it takes these days to knock off the Mighty Two.

“It’s certainly a challenge,” Bennett said, forcing a smile. “You almost have to look at it as a three-stage process: get some stability in your program and recruit as hard as you can. Try to have some success and then challenge for the top of the league — which means being able to compete with those two.”

Duke and North Carolina were a combined 25-3 against the rest of the league this season. And that was with Duke losing arguably its most important player (Kyrie Irving) for the season before conference play began.

Is there an answer?

“Yeah,” Bennett said. “We all have to get better. Because [Duke and North Carolina] aren’t likely to come back to the rest of us anytime soon. Look at Carolina; they have a down year last year and” — he snapped his fingers — “just like that they turn it and are as good as just about anyone in the country.”

That’s not easy to compete against. And right now, the rest of the ACC — regardless of what happens this weekend — isn’t getting the job done.

For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.

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